November 18 – Would you like to play a game?

Today’s factismal: The first video game was invented in 1947, 1951, 1958, 1961, or 1977.

Invention is a hard thing to define. Though we may think that we’ll know it when we see it, it is more common that we miss the small changes that build up to create a “new” invention. It happened with the light bulb (invented in 1802, 1841, 1872, and 1879), the laser (invented in 1917, 1953, and 1960), and the video game (invented in 1847, 1951, 1959, and 1977). But unlike the light bulb, which everyone “knows” was invented by Edison, and the laser, which everyone “knows” was invented by Maiman, the video game has no publicly proclaimed father – making it the most honest of the inventions!

The world's first video game (Image courtesy Riki Manzoli)

The world’s first video game
(Image courtesy Riki Manzoli)

Perhaps the first video game (if we ignore the possible role of the Antikythera mechanism) was the eponymous Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device. This device was nothing more than a modified oscilliscope (the cathode ray) with a button that they player would use to “fire” at a target (made from a piece of cellophane placed over the screen). Originally intended for training bombardiers, it enjoyed a brief life as an amusement device before the more active pinball took its place.

Soon after that came the introduction of a computer to the game, most notably with the release of OXO or Tic-Tac-Toe. Powered by a five-ton research computer with a memory 1/2,000,000th as large as the computer on your desk (ain’t progress great?), the computer would print out each move in a game of tic-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses as the Brits who invented the machine called the game) and won most of the time.

But a five-ton computer a reams of paper don’t exactly make for scintillating game play. And so it took the introduction of the CRT to computers in the late 1950s to give us “Mouse in a maze”, the forerunner of PacMan and all of the other “chase games”. But, unlike its children, in Mouse in a maze, the player constructed the maze and the computer ran the mouse, instead of the other way around.

Or is this the world's first video game? (Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

Or is this the world’s first video game?
(Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

It wasn’t until 1977 that video games took on their final incarnation when Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck realized that there were folks who would pay money to play the games that they’d been giving away for free. So they added a coin slot to their version of “Galaxy Game” which pitted two player against each other in an attempt to destroy the other’s spaceship.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Within a few short years, video games would be in every mall in America and parents would be wondering what happened to their children and their spare change. And the games continue to change. Where it used to take a huge console to play a game, now you can carry it in your back pocket. And where games used to cost a quarter, now they run upwards of $50 each (but you get unlimited lives). But perhaps the best change of all in video games is that now you can play them and help scientists at the same time. Over at Citizen Sort, they are looking for a few good gamers to help them discover hidden connections in their data. To play, head over to:

November 17 – The Big Sleep

Today’s factimsal: Every year, Monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico to the Great Lakes and back again; the journey takes four generations to complete!

Yes, today is a repeated factismal. And that’s because it is one of those things that is so amazing that you simply have to repeat it to believe it. Today, while Americans search for antacids and bargains, the great-grandchildren of the Monarch butterflies that left Mexico in the spring are heading back to their winter home. Once there, they will enter a state similar to suspended animation and live that way throughout the winter. Come spring, they will lay the eggs that will become the first generation to head back north.

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

Just think about it and you’ll see how amazing the journey is. The Monarch butterflies that are in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas right now will be in Mexico’s forests before the end of December. There they will enter diapause and wait until spring before waking up. (Anyone who has ever tried to wake a teenager can sympathize.) After that, the butterfly will start north and lay eggs along the way. Those eggs will hatch into caterpillars that will turn into the butterflies that actually make it to the Northern United Sates, where the butterflies will spend the summer. Come fall, the children of those summer Monarchs will head south, laying yet more eggs on the way. Those eggs will become the butterflies that actually make it all the way back to Mexico, nearly a year and four generations later.

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

But for some reason, the number of butterflies that mange the trip each year is decreasing. Is it climate change? Is it changes in land use? Is it a natural fluctuation? We simply don’t have enough information to decide. But you can help gather that information. Right now, the folks at the Xerces Society are looking for volunteers to go out and count butterflies (this is easier than it sounds like). By comparing the numbers from year to year and looking at the geographical distribution, they hope to be able to discover why one of our most beautiful butterflies is becoming one of our rarest. To help them, join in on the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Butterfly Count at:

November 13 – Frightfully Fun

Today’s Factismal: Fear of Friday the 13th is known as paraskevidekatriaphobia or friggatriskaidekaphobia .

One of the more interesting things about humans is that if something exists, there’s someone out there who is unreasonably afraid of it; in layman’s terms. they have a phobia. (Phobia is one of those words that started out being used with precision and grace by scientists before it was stolen by the popular press and used in every situation, appropriate or not. See “-gate” and “green” for more examples.) And in honor of Friday the 13th, here is a list of twenty-five phobias. Enjoy – unless you have pinaciphobia (a fear of lists)!

If you have Then you fear
Anthophobia Flowers
Barophobia Gravity
Chiroptophobia Bats

It's Bat-Banyan! (My camera)

It’s Bat-Banyan!
(My camera)

Decidophobia Choosing
Ergophobia Work or functioning
Frigophobia Becoming too cold

Definitely NOT the place for a frigiphobic! (My camera)

Definitely NOT the place for a frigophobic!
(My camera)

Gephyrophobia Bridges
Hierophobia Priests
Ichthyophobia Fish
Koumpounophobia Buttons
Lipophobia Fats in food
Melissophobia Bees

Who could be afraid of such a cute little - OUCH! (My camera)

Who could be afraid of such a cute little – OUCH!
(My camera)

Nyctophobia Darkness
Ombrophobia Rain
Pogonophobia Beards
Radiophobia Radioactivity or X-rays
Selenophobia The Moon

I'm only afraid that we might never make it back! (My camera)

I’m only afraid that we might never make it back!
(My camera)

Uranophobia Outer space
Workplace phobia The workplace
Xerophobia Dryness
Ylophobia Trees, forests or woods
Zoophobia Animals

November 12 – Snowbody’s Business

Today’s factismal: Meteorologists have more terms for snow than Eskimos do.

One fact that everyone knows is that Eskimos have lots of words for snow. It only makes sense that they would; after all, every year the Arctic is covered with the stuff for the better part of six months. But what many people don’t know is that meteorologists have even more terms for snow than the Eskimos do!

“Snow on water”
(My camera)

Of course, that does depend a little on how you define “words related to snow” and “Eskimo” (we’re pretty sure on what folks mean by “meteorologist”). There isn’t one group of Eskimo any more than there is one group of people in Europe. There are at least twenty-six distinct languages spoken by “Eskimos” (that is, indigenous people living in the Arctic Circle); though the languages all share a common ancestor (much as English and German and Afrikaans do), they differ in how many words they have for any given topic including snow.

And then there is the problem of defining words related to snow. Is “snowing” different from “snow”? Is “snowstorm” different from “blizzard”? Fortunately for us, linguists have been arguing over questions like this for the better part of a century. Based on one influential dictionary for the Yup’ik people, many people say that the Eskimos (or at least the Yup’ik) have fifteen distinct words for snow. They include snowflake (qanuk), frost (kaneq), fine snow/rain particles (kanevvluk), drifting snow (natquik), clinging snow (nevluk ‘clinging debris’, nevlugte- ‘have clinging debris’), fallen snow on the ground (aniu), soft, deep fallen snow on the ground (muruaneq), the crust on fallen snow (qetrar), freshly fallen snow on the ground (nutaryuk), snow floating on water (qanisqineq), snow bank (qengaruk), a block of snow (utvak), a snow cornice (navcaq), a blizzard or snowstorm (pirta), and a severe blizzard (cellallir).

The Hubbard glacier (My camera)

The Hubbard glacier
(My camera)

What about meteorologists? They worry about all types of weather, snow included, and have developed a very exacting terminology for snow and ice. Their lexicon includes snow ablation (snow removal by erosion), avalanche (snow rushing downslope in a mass), blizzard (a winter storm with sustained winds in excess of 35 mph that causes drifting and blowing snow and limited visibility), blowing snow (snow that is being blown by the wind and limits visibility), depth hoar (large crystals that form in snowbanks due to strong temperature gradients), diamond dust (tiny snowflakes too small to branch), drifting snow (snow moved around by the wind that doesn’t limit visibility), flurries (light snowfalls for short time periods), freshet (the increase in river flow caused by melting snow and ice), frost (small ice crystals formed on the surface of cold objects), frozen dew (what it sounds like), glacier (a packed mass of snow and ice), graupel (snowflakes that are coated with ice), heavy snow (more than four inches of snow accumulation in twelve hours), ice pellets (just what they sound like), ice storm (precipitation that falls as rain but freezes on contact with the ground), lake effect snow (the enhanced snowfall that happens on the down wind side of a lake), polycrystalline snow (several snowflakes fused together), quality of snow (the percent by weight of a snow sample that is ice), sleet (snow that melts and refreezes on the way down), snow (duh), snow depth (how deep the frozen precipitation is on the ground), snow flurries (light snow showers), snow grains (very small, white, opaque grains of ice), snow pellets (large white, opaque grains of ice), snow shower (snow falling for brief periods), snow squalls (intense but short periods of moderate to heavy snowfall and strong, gusty winds), snowburst (a very intense shower of snow), snowfall (how much snow has fallen), snowflake (duh), water equivalent (how much water you’d get if you melted the snow), whiteout (blowing snow that reduces the visibility to zero), and winter storm (a heavy snowfall event). If you were keeping score, that’s thirty-three terms or more than twice the number that the Eskimos use!

Hoar on leaves and plants in Oklahoma (My camera)

Hoar on leaves and plants in Oklahoma
(My camera)

Of course, all of that terminology is useless without some data to back it up. And that’s where you come in! All you have to do is go outside when it snows, measure the depth of the snow, and let the folks at CoCORAHS know how deep it got. To learn more, sled on over to:

November 10 – Getting Hot In Here

Today’s factismal: The Earth is, on average, 1°C warmer today than it was in the 20th century.

Imagine that it is a cold, winters night and you’d like to sleep in a warm bed. Rather than turning up the heat (because that costs money), you put another blanket on the bed. In just a few moments, you are warm and toasty. But why? You can thank the science of thermodynamics. You are warmer than the air around you on all but the hottest days; as a result, heat escapes from you and heads into the air. But when you add a blanket (or wear clothes), some of that heat is reflected back. As a result, you lose heat more slowly and your temperature goes up.

Right now, the Earth has a blanket of what are called “greenhouse gases” around it. The gases, which include carbon dioxide (or CO2), methane, and water, act just like that blanket on your bed. They slow down the rate that heat leaves the Earth, raising the temperature. This effect is not news; scientists first predicted it back in 1896 and have been estimating its effects ever since. And one of the most interesting things about their predictions (other than the fact that they have usually come to pass) is that they have said “there is high confidence that ECS is extremely unlikely less than 1°C and medium confidence that the ECS is likely between 1.5°C and 4.5°C and very unlikely greater than 6°C”.

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average. (Image courtesy NOAA)

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average.
(Image courtesy NOAA)

What does that wiffle-waffle mean? It means that the Earth is likely to warm up and that the amount of warming will be at least 1°C. And this month, we have evidence that they are, once again, right. That’s because, unless the last three months of this year are exceptionally cool (which isn’t likely), the average temperature of the Earth will be  1°C warmer than the 20th century average. To give you an idea of what this means, remember that the average temperature in 1816 (“the Year Without A Summer“) was about 1°C below the 20th century average. So we are now as hot as they were cold. The main difference being that the temperatures only stayed below average for a couple of years in 1816; this year’s high marks the 39th year in a row that temperatures have been above average.

As a citizen scientist, there are two sets of things you can do. The first is to reduce the amount of energy you use; a nice benefit of this is that you also save money. For example, making sure that your tires are properly inflated will save you the equivalent of $0.10 per gallon and save the US the equivalent of 1.2 billion gallons of oil. Adding a layer of insulation to your water heater (like that blanket on your bed) will save you about $30 per year and save the US another 500 million gallons of oil. There are plenty of other way you can save money while saving the planet. But if you still want to do more, why not help record the changes that global warming is bringing to your neighborhood? Join iSeeChange and help them monitor how temperatures, weather, and other things are changing. To learn more, head to:

November 9 – Singing In The Brain

Today’s factismal: In 1992, Thomas School yodeled 22 tones in one second, setting a new world’s record.

Let’s suppose that it is 1500 and you live on an Alpine meadow where you herd your goats, and that your best friend lives on an Alpine meadow across the valley where he herds his goats. Now let’s suppose that you just thought of the world’s funniest joke and want to tell it to him. You could pull out your cell phone, except that they haven’t been invented yet. You could walk over to tell it to him, but it is an all day journey down into the valley and back up. You could try to tell it to him by semaphore except he may not see you waving your arms. Or you could sing it to him.

Believe it or not, that’s exactly what the people in the Alps do. Over the years, they have developed a way to call across the mountains by singing. And they aren’t alone; yodeling is used by tribes in Africa, groups in Pakistan, and even field hands in America. By using a series of musical tones to carry information, the goatherds and other folks were able to send the information clearly and easily. Where words would blur and become confused by echoes, musical tones remain clear and easy to understand.

Today, the goatherds have cellular phones and yodeling is mostly found on country and western albums. But it still remains as a reminder of what life was like back when the only way to talk to a friend was to sing.

If you’d like to help anthropologists as they learn more about the ways we communicate, then head on over to the Open Anthropology Project:

November 6 – No Bull

Today’s factismal: The Taurid meteor shower looks like it is coming from Taurus the bull.

One of the cool things about the Earth is how often it gets hit by a meteorite. On average, 42,000 meteorites hit the Earth every year. That works out to be about 150 strikes each day! But some days are more average than others, and we are having a few of those days right now because we are in the middle of the Taurid meteor shower.

Named for Taurus the bull, which is the constellation just to the right of Orion as you look at it in the sky, this meteor shower happens when the Earth’s orbit takes it through the debris of comet Encke. As comets move closer to the Sun, they heat up and begin to outgas (which means just what it sounds like: they start to give off gas in noxious clouds {like Uncle Joe} and in large jets {like Aunt Sally}). The outgassing also breaks off small chunks of the comet which form a giant debris trail in the sky. Most of these chunks are about the size of a grain of sand, but some can be much larger. When the debris from the comet meets the Earth’s atmosphere, they create the meteor.

These eight images show how much gas is jetted off of a comet in just half an hour! (Image courtesy NASA)

These eight images show how much gas is jetted off of a comet in just half an hour!
(Image courtesy NASA)

Encke is pretty famous in astronomical circles; it was the second periodic comet every discovered (after Halley’s comet). A large reason for it being discovered was the fact that it has a very short period – just 3.3 years! Thanks to that short period, Encke has been shedding tons of dust and rocks into space. And thanks to that shrot period, we are fairly sure that Encke itself is the remains of a larger comet that broke apart some 20,000 years ago. Because it is so new, Encke has created one of the largest and broadest swaths of cosmic debris in the Solar system. Instead of lasting for a few days, the Taurid meteor shower typically lasts for a month!

The best place to watch a meteor shower, ever! (Image courtesy NASA)

The best place to watch a meteor shower, ever!
(Image courtesy NASA)

And if you’d like to do more than just ooh and aah at the pretty meteor as they burn up, why not download NASA’s Meteor Counter App (available for iPad, iPhone, and iWannaMeteor)? You’ll be able to send NASA scientists valuable information on the number of meteors that hit during the shower. To get the app, go to the iTunes store: